Authors: Keith Reilly
Copyright Â© 2015 Keith Reilly
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ISBN 978 1784628 574
British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data.
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.
is an imprint of Troubador Publishing Ltd
Converted to eBook by
To my sister Jillian whose unique enthusiasm
breathed life into this story
Born in Belfast in 1962, Keith Reilly left to travel the world at 18, exploring Europe, India and South East Asia and meeting Dutch wife, Maryke, en route. Today they live in Dorset and have two grown up children. Keith focused on his career and became managing director of an international electronics firm. However, his creative side could not be ignored. Over the years he has published a number of artworks of Belfast and other cities, but more recently has turned to words for creative expression, from which emerged his debut novel,
Ahoy for Joy
Cover illustration from an oil painting entitled: “Belfast Shipyard from Pearl's house” by Keith Reilly
The three white minibuses arrived just before noon. A small, pale boy aged about thirteen with fair, roughly shorn hair, jumped out of the first and unlocked the rusty five bar gate to the farmer's field. Holding it open, he waved the vehicles through one at a time, before skipping enthusiastically ahead to a further gate a hundred yards up a steep incline and doing the same. The vehicles entered the large field and circled round a little before pulling to a halt together, roughly centrally and not far from the gate. Some men emerged from one of the minibuses, more from another along with boys, teenagers and then two women. The group stretched their legs. Some walked about the site surveying it thoughtfully, while others stood chatting in small groups. Some of the younger boys began chasing each other around in a rather haphazard fashion. There was a scream. Several of the boys had wrestled a small lad to the ground, shouting and giggling as they pulled his trousers to his ankles.
“Let him go, will you” shouted one of the men angrily. “There's work to be done.”
The field sat atop a small mound that rose up from the outside of the town and sloped off into the distance toward the north. To the west, the sands of Morecambe Bay could be seen stretching away towards the far off headland. It was summer and warm. The wet sands fused into the shallow water without contrast while the high sun sparkled on the Irish Sea beyond.
Then a van arrived followed by a large flatbed lorry which moved slowly up the hill. It was not of the very largest type, but was stacked high with all manner of awkward shapes, covered and held in place by a dirty green tarpaulin tied with rope. More men emerged and boys too. Before long there was a hubbub of activity where only moments earlier, the field had sat quiet with only the birdsong for company.
There were shouts for help and effort, punctuated with angry tones threatening discipline. The unloading began. Smaller items emerged from the van; boxes and cartons, some clinking with loose items, others packed tightly and tied with string. Spades, mallets of several different sizes and other tools emerged along with hurricane lamps, pots and pans, brooms and buckets.
One man in particular was in charge. He was a stout man in his mid-fifties, with an air of command about him and wore freshly creased dark blue trousers and a white open-necked shirt, like he was used to sporting a tie but had discarded it for the day's activities. He stood largely stationary near the truck, rotating in different directions while shouting instructions, identifying items and directing them to different places in the field. Groups of boys helped, pulling and hauling, sometimes without the most refined of methods. A number of them could be seen dragging cartons across the grass, hauling and straining. One cardboard box burst open and large cans of baked beans and vegetables spilled out, rolling in all directions across the grass to be rescued by the hapless young labourers, who stacked them untidily alongside the other equipment that was piling up nearby.
The flatbed was untied; a lengthy process that involved the slow disentanglement of ropes and ties before the tarpaulin was removed and larger items unloaded. Trestle tables, chairs and benches, three kitchen cookers, of the regular gas type found in any kitchen, were carefully lowered to the ground. Half a dozen large gas bottles, several plastic water containers, four big industrial stainless steel sinks and two hot water urns, like those found in a church for serving tea or coffee to large groups, were all carefully unloaded.
Big heavy poles were handed down from the vehicle, some enormous, made of rough wood, cracked and splintered and painted in a light red colour that had faded with time. On one of them was written, in large letters; “Belfast Battalion.” Dozens of hanks and coils of rope were thrown to the ground, followed by several large un-shapely bags tied at one end with small lengths of coarse string.
Everything was carried and placed in various locations around the camp at the direction of one they called the
who rushed around shouting and pointing. He was the second in command, aged around fifty and dressed more casually wearing jeans and a bright checked lumberjack shirt with the long sleeves rolled up to just below his elbows. He fulfilled a kind of mobile version of the central commander and watching the two working together, it was clear this was a well-practised routine. After the poles came large rolls of white canvas which were again carried around the field. Some took three or four to carry, other larger ones required, six, seven or even eight people to move.
Finally, tied tightly to the stanchion at the front of the truck, just behind the cab was a small bellow-operated church organ of the foot pedal type. It was built of polished mahogany, about the width of a standard piano, but a little deeper and stouter in nature. Once untied, it was carefully slid across the flat surface of the truck by several of the older boys. Then two large wooden poles were pushed through dedicated holes in the main body towards the bottom of the unit enabling it to be lifted stably by four people. Ushering it to the edge, four men each gripped a pole end and then taking up the weight, it was lowered slowly to the ground, before being carried to the main area where most of the other items now stood.
Once the flatbed was empty, the driver jumped once more into the cab, reversed a little and engaged gear. Rolling down the window, he leaned out and shouted,
“See you in a week,” and with that he was gone. It was hot and with the unloading complete, one of the ladies ran around handing out cans of soft drinks as well as sandwiches and biscuits.
Michael Coglan didn't much care for Boys' Brigade camp. It was just organised bullying from his point of view. Instead of the usual two-hour harassments and minor beatings of a Monday parade night, the week would be more or less a constant barrage of youthful abuse, verbal and physical, that everyone liked to describe as
The adults justified it with noble terms like
or the process of
turning boys into honest young men
. Michael saw it as a kind of mildly sadistic abuse that his and everyone else's characters would build just fine without. Still, he never complained and it was a week away; a change of scene.
“Tours of the black hole, tours of the black hole,” a voice rang out. Michael knew what that meant. Despite his reservations and complaints, he came every year and was familiar with the expression used for the series of ditches that would be dug at the edge of the camping ground for use as makeshift urinals. These would then be covered over again at the end of the week, quickly returning the farmland to soil and grass.
“Come on Michael; take these shovels and a couple of the younger lads. Your tent can dig the hole this year.”
His mind protested, but he made no noise. Instead, he lowered his head and his eyes focussed on a clump of clover in the grass as he wondered if a four leaf might be among them.
“Come on now, dig the black hole and you'll at least know your way around in the dark!” The officer laughed openly at his own wisdom. “Look, go over there, as far as you can get, close to that hedge. The wind should blow mostly from the coast, so we should at least be spared the smell.” Michael grudgingly took the four shovels and handed three to some of the smaller boys that were loitering nearby. He met their innocent eyes with a solemn nod to follow.
Welcome to camp lads. Tours of the black hole
, he sighed to himself.
“At least a foot deep, mind,” shouted the officer at their backs.
Meanwhile, in the centre of the pitch, a huge canvas was being unrolled. It was opened out, placed and rotated several times under the direction of the Adjutant, as he carefully surveyed the sun's position and wind direction. Two of the largest poles were then carried over and while the edge of the main canvas was lifted slightly, the end of one of the poles was guided by a small boy who crawled underneath like a mouse beneath a rug.
Suddenly, to the sound of giggling bystanders, a large, fat boy jumped forward and belly flopped on the unsuspecting mite crawling underneath in the dark, causing a loud shriek followed by a slow, sorrowful murmur.
“Stop messing around” shouted the Adjutant angrily. At last the boy began moving again, inching forward and at the direction of the Adjutant, finally located the iron rod on the end of the pole into the sewn brass eyelet at the top of the first apex of the tent. The same process was carried out with the second pole and the small boy emerged looking red and bothered to a pat on the back from one of the officers and a small burst of applause from the now slightly more sympathetic onlookers. One of the canvas bags was then untied and dozens of tent pegs fell out. Some were rough wood with battered, frayed ends from years of mallet action, while others were works of art, eccentric designs complete with names and places engraved like; Willie Best, Prestatyn '73 or James Montgomery, Isle of Cumbrae '71. The annual tent peg carving competition had been generating a reliable source of high quality new tent pegs for many years.
The Adjutant then produced a tape measure and carefully measured a distance of forty-two feet between the bases of the two poles before selecting several of the better looking pegs and hammering them into the ground at the base of each pole providing horizontal purchase against the grassy surface. Four ropes were then attached by loops onto the pins, now poking through the brass eyelets on the top but shielded by little canopies to stop the rain seeping in at the top, and laid out flat on the grass on either side.
The guy ropes were already attached to the lower edges of the marquee roof and the Adjutant, along with another officer, ushered boys of all sizes into place on either side and on the ends too. Each was given a line to hold.
“When it reaches the top, take up the tension,” he said again and again as he checked everyone's position, “
take up the tension,” he emphasised. Finally, two officers one side and two of the bigger boys on the other took hold of the long ropes attached to the top pins and on one side, pulled the ropes tight to take the strain.
“OK, ready. At my command,” said the Adjutant with confident authority, “take the strainâ¦andâ¦” he looked around checking “p u l l.”
The huge white canvas flew into the air, bellowing and flapping like the giant sails of a yacht facing into the wind, their power still unharnessed, awaiting the control of the sailor. When the poles reached vertical, the forces of the lifting side were reduced and the two boys on the other side stepped and struggled to maintain their balance as they took the strain.
“Jackie, move that way, a little to the left, otherwise the poles will fall towards each other,” shouted the Adjutant confidently. In seconds a balance had been reached. The smaller boys held the guy ropes firm around the perimeter leaving the great white canvas roof floating on the two main upright poles.
“Hold tight, hold tight. Perfect, everyone. Don't pull, don't pull, just take the strain, take the strain.” The Adjutant stopped and smiled for a moment, his hand on his hip, as everyone held their positions. He hadn't missed a camp in 30 years and had hoisted many marquees in all conditions from pelting rain to high winds. This one had been easy. He marched to the position of one of the boys holding a main guy rope connected to the pole end, now some 20 feet in the air and taking a large mallet from the pile, he hammered a stout peg into the ground nearby. Then quickly, he took the rope and hooking it over the peg, adjusted the wooden tensioner to balance the strain. In moments, he had done all four. The older boys and officers, now relieved of their hoisting duties, then ran around the tent, hammering pegs, carefully aligned to run with the seams of the canvas, maybe ten or twelve feet from the edge. Then, methodically, relieving opposite boys in turn of their duties, they hooked the shorter guy ropes in position, again adjusting each one to balance the strain. Finally, the four main lifting guys were unhooked from the pegs and with a quick flick, the adjutant sent a wave through the ropes causing them to jump off the apexes at both ends.
Within minutes the canvas sat still in the air without the need for human aid, contrasting majestically with the blue sky above and the flourishing high trees that edged the site. Some, like the Adjutant, had done this many times before, while for others, it was their first camp, or at least their first mission with the advance party that would set up the tents before most of the boys arrived later in the day. Instinctively, everyone stopped briefly at this stage, without command or direction and admired the grandeur of the great white cape floating apparently unaided above the ground; the sun's rays lighting its shape and creating a kind of mystical vision, like an instant cathedral had suddenly appeared before them.
When Michael arrived back, the walls were being hooked in place and pinned to the ground with smaller pegs cordoning off the interior from the outside. His arrival was met with the departure of another group who loped off towards the
where a rough wood sign indicating the same had already been sited beside where Michael and his party had dug the ditches. The new group carried small green canvases and large tin buckets with wooden toilet seats for the construction of the individual tent cubicles or
as they were called, for more solid waste. Not that Michael would use them much due to the usual fear of having the tent suddenly removed by giggling youths leaving him exposed and with dirty bottom, sitting atop 30 lbs of chemically neutralised waste, to the gaze and puerile mockery of anyone interested enough to take notice.
With the main marquee built, the focus moved to the other tents required for the camp. Two groups of four boys went about raising the bell tents that would provide the sleeping accommodation for the boys. The principle was much the same as for the marquee, only that there was just one central post in the middle and the sides of the tent remained attached to the main roofing sheet, but they were raised in the same way. This was not quite as easy with the bell tents, due to the tent being round, as it could tend to ârotate' slightly if any of the ropes were even slightly out of line, pulling one way or the other. It was important to get this right as this lining of the guys and seams was an important element of the camp inspection that would take place each morning. The bell tents were large enough to sleep up to ten boys, but usually eight was considered optimum, with heads at the sides and feet all pointing towards the pole in the middle. This allowed for a little personal space at the head end, but left the feet kicking each other by the central pole.